Describing the plot of Paul Meloy’s debut novel The Night Clock in a few sentences is damn near impossible, but I’ll give it a shot. So, basically, there are a group of individuals scattered across the earth who have certain powers (all of their powers differ from each other) who together make up the titular timepiece. It’s not a literal clock but rather the combined force of these individuals, and it profoundly impacts what’s called Dark Time, which is perhaps better described as Dream Time as it is the time continuum that presides over dreams, and it is not linear. It travels in every direction at once, and it’s infinite, because of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?
Anyway, whenever the number of these folks—individually called Firmament Surgeons—drops to a dangerously low level, it invites a dream monster called the devil-in-dreams to try to gain permanent control of Dark Time, thus giving it the power to end everyone’s dreams, and without dreams humans apparently become bitter, forlorn shells of their former selves, which is exactly what the devil-in-dreams wants, so it can feast on humanity’s hopelessness and despair. Mmm, such tasty, tasty despair. Well, the bare minimum of Firmament Surgeons needed to work the Night Clock is ten, and there are currently only nine extant, with the tenth slated to be born any day now. So the devil-in-dreams attempts to seize its chance by having its minions the Autoscopes and Toyceivers (which, honestly, both sound like something Meloy made up as a 10-year-old and decided to throw in here because they still sound kinda sorta cool, I guess?) to build an army of machines to hunt down and destroy all of the remaining Firmament Surgeons, or at least enough of them that it can wrest control of Dark Time away from humanity forever and then spend the rest of eternity just having loads of fun fucking their shit up. And so the race to beat the clock begins . . . the Night Clock, that is. Mwa ha ha ha!
Ahem, sorry. Right, so, as best I can gather, that is the plot of this book. I say as best I can gather because the author took the concept of dream logic to its extreme and pretty much did away with any sort of linearity or straightforward storytelling here, instead tossing a bunch of disparate patchwork fragments together into a narrative quilt that barely moves the plot in anything like a forward direction for probably 90% of the book, and then hits you with the main plot towards the very end, right when you’re just starting to figure out who everyone is and what their role is supposed to be. Considering that The Night Clock is about dreams, this sort of writing style could actually have worked in favor of the concept. However, in order for that to be the case, one needs to see a very clear distinction between the dream reality and, er . . . reality reality, and the main characters while they’re in those different realities. As it stands, it’s pretty much impossible to do that once we know about Dark Time, the Quays and the rest. What happens instead is that an assortment of vaguely defined characters move around between the dream world and waking world, doing things that barely seem to make sense or have anything to do with the story (What is Les’s deal exactly? And what the hell was that fetus in the jar all about?)
Which brings me to one of my main complaints with this book: there are way too damn many characters who aren’t quite distinguishable from one another. And I don’t mean just the supporting cast—Meloy presents a handful of point-of-view characters, and even they were pretty bland and undifferentiated for the most part, making it a nigh herculean task to care about any of them. The exception was Chloe, the unborn tenth Firmament Surgeon, who for some reason that is never explained (honestly, there’s a whole LOT of shit left unexplained) has a dual existence in the womb and in her Quay (dream realm) as a sort of ageless wide-eyed innocent. And though they aren’t p.o.v. characters, some of the sentient animals are quite cool, especially a tiger called Bronze John and a Saluki named Bix.
Another big problem I had with the protagonists is the morally outrageous thing they do at the end of the book to capture the central villain. I hesitate to spoil it for anyone who does still want to read the book, but (consider yourself warned—if you don’t want to read the spoiler, go straight to the next paragraph!) they essentially murder an innocent man—innocent, at least, with respect to the rest of the story. The author goes out of his way to stress that the guy is a morally/psychologically sick individual. So I guess that’s supposed to make it okay? Yeah, fuck that. Murder is murder, and the members of the Night Clock all either participate in or witness that murder. Yet none of them ever questions it, or is even the slightest bit traumatized or bothered by it, including a couple of medical professionals (Hippocratic oath, anyone?) and the few children who are present. His death was not gentle either—it was gruesome and painful. In the end, the murdered character became a convenient vessel for their plans and nothing more. For a group of people who are essentially in charge of protecting all of humanity, this was more than a little troubling and left a very sour taste in my mouth over the book’s entire resolution.
The Night Clock does have some points in its favor though. Meloy is certainly an adroit wordsmith with a real knack for darkly poetic turns of phrase. Moreover, there are more than enough solid ideas and characters here to craft not just a much more substantial novel than we got (about 250 pages story-wise) but even a limited series. In the right hands this could’ve been epic, perhaps something like King’s Dark Tower series, where instead of a ka-tet, the members of the Night Clock are gathered together over the course of the series and battle it out with the devil-in-dreams and its followers in various surreal dream settings, until the final major battle settles things once and for all (or doesn’t). Instead we got an anemic novel with far too much stuffed into it and the barest minimum of an attempt to cobble together an actual story out of these pieces. I know this is Meloy’s first novel but he desperately needed an editor to tell him, “Well, gee, Paul, lots of cool ideas here, but it’s not quite there yet. Maybe flesh this out a bit more, let us get to know and love these characters, and make the enemies scarier. Also, lose the cold-blooded murder at the end. These are the good guys.”
Yes, that might have done it. Sadly, the grand and unforgettable saga of a ragtag group of oneiric soldiers and agents coming together to save the beautiful realms of our sleeping selves that this could’ve been remains a, um . . . dream.